Friends at Die Zeit, who heard me speak at a panel about “Cameras Everywhere” at Personal Democracy Forum, asked me to write an op-ed for their newspaper. That piece ran today, translated into German. Here’s the English version I wrote just before the “Restore the 4th” protests in Washington DC and elsewhere.
Revelations about the extent of the US government’s surveillance of digital media has triggered a range of reactions around the world. In the world outside the US, citizens and their governments are rightly furious that the National Security Agency is systematically monitoring communications on some of the world’s most widely used communications platforms. That the US apparently spies on its closest allies in EU offices merely adds insult to injury.
The reaction within the US to these revelations has been disappointingly subdued. Civil libertarians and advocates for free speech online are struggling to productively channel their anger and are planning a major protest in Washington DC on July 4. But more widespread responses include a nodding acceptance of any invasion of privacy in exchange for prevention of terrorist violence, and a cynical, world-weary insistence that no one should be surprised that all digital networks are monitored both by corporations and by governments.
As a frustrated advocate for unfettered online speech, I find myself looking for ways to help my fellow Americans understand the significance of pervasive online surveillance. Unlike in Germany, where memories of the Stasi trigger an instinctive resistance to being watched, surveillance in the US has often focused on marginal political groups, which allows many Americans to assume that surveillance doesn’t affect them personally. This search for ways to make surveillance more apparent has led me to the work of Dr. Steve Mann and his work on “sousveillance”.
Mann is a professor at the University of Toronto, and an innovator in the world of wearable computers. In 1981, as a student at MIT, he created the first generation of EyeTap, a head mounted camera that recorded what the wearer saw and presented a computer-enhanced view of the scene. More than thirty years before Google Glass, Mann began living life while wearing a camera, recording all that he encountered, an experience that’s given him some deep insights into watching and being watched.
Mann coined the term “sousveillance” – watching from below – as an alternative to “surveillance” – watching from above. In surveillance, powerful institutions control the behavior of individuals by watching them or threatening to watch them, as in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. In sousveillance, individuals invert the paradigm by turning their cameras on institutions, promising to document and share misbehavior and malfeasance with a potentially global audience through digital networks.
One effect of sousveillance is to provoke conversations about what it means to be watched. Even when surveillance is visible, as in the CCTV cameras that loom over many of our city streets, most of us tend to ignore the unseen watchers who monitor us. But when someone points a camera at us – particularly a camera mounted on their eyeglasses – we react, often with anger or dismay. Mann, who wears his EyeTap permanently attached to his head, was assaulted in a McDonalds in Paris by employees who were upset that he was taking pictures and who sought to force him to remove the camera.
We may need similar provocations to trigger our reactions to online surveillance. “Creepy”, a program by Ioannis Kakavas, can track an individual’s movements on a map through her postings on social media services. While Creepy was intended as an activist project, commercial programs use similar techniques. A controversial iPhone application, Girls Around Me, mines data on Foursquare to alert men looking for dates to locations in their cities where many women have checked in. Angry reactions to these programs, as well as reports of bars preemptively banning patrons from wearing Google Glass suggest that Mann’s idea of making surveillance both personal and visible may be a first step in provoking a discussion about what types of watching are appropriate and inappropriate.
There’s a second aspect of sousveillance that’s worth exploring: the idea that individuals may be able to keep the powerful in check by documenting misbehavior. While this idea can seem hopelessly naïve when confronted with systems as massive and pervasive as PRISM, it’s worth exploring cases where watching from below has helped fight abuses of power. Morgan Tsvangirai’s appointment as prime minister of Zimbabwe in 2009 was a direct result of his party’s technique of photographing voting tallies at each polling station, enabling a parallel tabulation of votes. Confronted with evidence that Tsvangirai had beaten Mugabe in the first round, Mugabe’s government was unable to rig the election and was forced into a power-sharing agreement with Tsvangirai, the opposition leader.
More recently, activists in the Occupy Movement have used livestreaming of video as a technique to document their protests and police violence against protesters. Dozens of cameras captured footage of Lt. John Pike attacking seated protesters with pepper spray at a peaceful Occupy protest at UC Davis. The widely documented incident led to the UC Davis police chief and two officers being suspended and to Lt. Pike losing his job, and created one of the most powerful images of the power asymmetries the Occupy movement sought to confront.
Pervasive cameras can document the inner workings of institutions as well as abuses of power. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suffered a major campaign setback when video showed him dismissing 47% of the American electorate as unlikely to vote for him because they “believe they are victims” and are dependent on government services. The video, secretly shot by Scott Prouty at a fundraising event, was posted online and widely distributed by Democratic activists, who saw the video as evidence that Romney was out of touch with the electorate.
Most recently, sousveillance has shown its power in documenting protest movements in Turkey and Brazil that were initially ignored by mainstream media. In Turkey, CNN famously showed a documentary about penguins rather than footage from Gezi Park, leading protesters to make signs that show penguins wearing gas masks, protesting both the government’s use of tear gas and the media’s silence about the protests. In the absence of broadcast media attention, the protesters used their own documentation to find audiences online, spreading protests from those in the park to those who witnessed online and began protests in their corners of the country.
The Obama administration seems unlikely to shift policy on online surveillance without widespread and sustained popular outcry. As activists seek to trigger that outcry, we may need to make surveillance far more visible so it can become far more controversial.
I have a brief piece on The Atlantic’s website today that contrasts Facebook and Reddit in terms of how they build online communities and direct their users to new content. I argue that Reddit, with the assumption of anonymity and an organization around topics and sections has some resemblance to the Internet of the 1980 and 90s, while Facebook has changed the shape of internet communities, demanding real-name registration and building online social networks that mirror our offline networks. By paying attention to social media communities that work along the Reddit model as well as those that follow the Facebook model, I hope that people can increase their cognitive diversity and expose themselves to a wider range of ideas, opinions and perspectives.
My friend Anthea Watson Strong pointed out on Twitter that Reddit is an odd example to use when talking about cognitive diversity. It has a reputation for being white, male, young and American… and that reputation is not unjustified. (This study of US Reddit users by Pew’s Internet and American Life Project suggests that the audience is broader and larger than we might think – in particular, I was surprised to see the large reach with Latino youth.) In Rewire, I spend a decent amount of time beating myself up for my Reddit habit, pointing to my tendency to return to the site as an example of seeking out familiar, comfortable voices rather than seeking diversity.
So why the praise for Reddit? I’m not trying to argue that Reddit is superior to Facebook, or that Reddit is the solution to problems of increasing cognitive diversity. But Reddit is a good example of a site that’s reached a large audience by using a different model of community than Facebook’s model of real-name, real-world network community. Other examples include Twitter (which features asymmetric following, no assumption of real name, and support for topic-based organization through lists), and Wikipedia (which features communities based around common practice and collaboration and a citizenship model for participation).
My argument isn’t even against Facebook’s ordering of community, though I think it reinforces homophily effects that plague offline communities. It’s for people building new internet tools to consider the idea that there are multiple ways of building an online community, and that different communities have different strengths and weaknesses. The people you meet by exploring a common topic is different than the group of people you meet by migrating your offline social network online. I worry that when we talk about “social media”, we talk too much about networks that work like Facebook and not enough about networks that work like Reddit or like Wikipedia. In particular, I see a lot of tools that are using social networks to customize search and use only a narrow definition of social network to look for recommendations and inspirations.
Commenting on my piece, David Aron Levine notes, “This article by @EthanZ on Reddit highlights as much a latent demand for something more as it does Reddit”. Yep – that’s right. I like Reddit and use it (as a lurker, as my dismal karma numbers will show), but what I’d really like to see is a wave of new communities organized around different ideas of what it means to be social. Some might connect people around topics of common interest, as Reddit does. Others might bring people together around a common project, as Wikipedia does. I’d particularly like to see – or perhaps build – a community that helps people discover each other via a common interest but emphasizes connecting people who would be highly unlikely to meet in the physical world, or who come from very different backgrounds.
Would love your thoughts on who’s doing good work defining online community in terms other than “people I know in the physical world” and how these communities can help people discover information online.
Early this morning, Reddit user “SlartiBartRelative” posted a photo, with the headline “The icon of anti-capitalism, mass-produced”. The post received thousands of upvotes and generated a long comment thread, though the most highly-rated comment argued “Those masks have nothing to do with anti-capitalism… like at all”. Other commentators note that Anonymous, which has famously adopted the Guy Fawkes mask, is anti-corruption or anti-tyranny, which may sometimes manifest itself as anti-corporatism, which can look a lot like anti-capitalism. (There’s also a helpful discourse on the historical Guy Fawkes. Yay, Reddit comment threads!)
I saw the image as it started appearing on Twitter, usually with a comment about irony or despair that a protest symbol was mass-produced under less-than-salubrious conditions:
Swiss author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli recently published a provocative essay titled “News is Bad for You” in The Guardian. The essay describes news – particularly fast-breaking, rapidly updated news – as an addictive drug, inhibiting our thinking, damaging our bodies and wasting our time. Dobelli is so concerned with the negative effects of news that he’s cut himself off from consuming news for the past four years and urges that you do the same.
His arguments attracted angry responses within The Guardian‘s newsroom. Madeleine Bunting writes, “As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist?”
I had a different reaction to Dobelli’s provocation. I found it pretty persuasive. I shared the article with students in a class I teach called “News and Participatory Media”, and asked the students for their reactions. Many found Dobelli’s case compelling, especially those students who were mid-career journalists. Much of what frustrated them about their profession was bluntly identified in Dobelli’s piece: too often, news is a set of disconnected snippets that promises to inform and empower, but merely entertains, distracts and ultimately misleads.
While Dobelli offers a persuasive set of problems, his proposed solution – stop reading news – strikes me as unhelpful and selfish. You personally may benefit from the time you reclaim in kicking the news habit, but there is likely a societal cost in encouraging people to opt out of consuming the news. A democratic form of government presumes an informed populace that can select appropriate representatives and identify issues that merit public debate. As Bunting notes in her response, a happy, docile and ill-informed citizenry is the precursor to a Huxleian vision of totalitarianism.
Dobelli might accept the accusations of selfishness. His essay is adapted from his new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, which is an odd example of a self-help book. Deeply inspired by Naseem Taleb’s work linking cognitive science and economics, Dobelli outlines 99 cognitive shortcomings, errors and fallacies in an attempt either to steer us towards smarter decisionmaking or, more likely, to bludgeon us into a realization that human beings are pretty lousy at making rational decisions. By the end of the book, Dobelli admits that he rarely considers all these errors and fallacies in making decisions and simply goes with his gut – however, he wants us to have these tools handy for the really important decisions. Those decisions, his examples suggest, generally have to do with making investments as wisely as Warren Buffet or getting good deals on expensive cars. His is not a book about civics – it’s a book about maximizing your personal gains.
If we take Dobelli’s criticism seriously but reject his proposed solution, one next step is to look for ways to address the shortcomings of contemporary journalism. If we don’t like the sort of repetitive, click-seeking, shallow journalism that Pablo Boczkowski identifies in his book “News at Work“, we need to find ways to support “slow news” that focuses on investigation and contextualization of breaking news. If we are dismayed by how both new and old media got many details of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the bombers wrong, we need either to slow newsrooms down, or to build better tools to help both newsrooms and readers cross-check and verify breaking news reports.
I can (and frequently do) point to people and projects focused on solving the problems Dobelli poses , but I’m left with two of his challenges that I can’t ignore or solve. They are related points: “News is irrelevant” and “News makes us passive.” These intertwined problems strike me as uncomfortably hard to address.
Four year ago, Hal Roberts and I were researching internet censorship by studying the use of proxy servers around the world. Proxy servers are often used to circumvent internet filtering, letting users access content that’s otherwise blocked by a national government, an internet service provider, or a school or business. We found that the usage of these tools, including both free, ad-supported tools and subscription-based VPN services, was surprisingly small: less than 3% of all internet users in countries that aggressively censored the internet.
This surprised us, as there’s been a great deal of dialog in the US about “internet freedom”, a US government policy that supports providing uncensored internet access to people in China, Iran and other nations whose governments filter the internet. Our research suggested that the efforts already underway by projects like Tor and Freegate weren’t being used nearly as much as their authors hoped. This might be due to weaknesses in the tools, but we suspected another motivation: lack of user interest. Hal designed a study of bloggers in countries that censored the internet, asking whether they used circumvention tools. Almost all were aware of the existence of proxy servers, but few used them regularly. When we asked why they weren’t using these tools, most told us that they weren’t very interested in accessing blocked content.
A new paper from Harsh Taneja and Angela Xiao Wu at Northwestern University offers some insights into why this is the case. Taneja and Wu use internet usage data from Comscore to analyze the thousand most globally popular websites, examining their overlapping audiences. Audiences for websites tend to cluster together – people who visit CNN.com are more likely to also visit ESPN.com than people who visit Chinese search engine Baidu. The authors identify a set of 37 “culturally defined markets”, collections of popular websites that seem to be visited predominantly by people who share languages or cultures. Language, while a powerful factor in explaining this clustering, isn’t the sole factor: a cluster of French and Arabic-language sites represents a bilingual North African culture, for example, and an Indian cluster containing mostly English-language sites is distinct from an English-language North American/UK/Australian cluster. And there’s a cluster of football sites that appears to have a truly transnational audience. (more…)